Behind the Scenes of ‘The Colbert Report’ with Colbert and His Writers

As part of the New York Comedy Festival, Stephen Colbert sat down with 17 of his writers and producers last night to give a behind the scenes look at the Emmy-winning Colbert Report. Aside from dropping some interesting tidbits about the show’s logistics (there’s a trap door under his desk to hide the people and occasional live animals that are needed during segments), Colbert and his writers had plenty to say about writing a show for a character, dealing with network-enforced sponsorship, and the set’s resemblance to Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Below are some of the best quotes from the evening. (All quotes are Colbert’s unless otherwise noted).

On what percentage of “Stephen Colbert” is actually Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert: “I sometimes agree [with him], and it’s really important that you don’t know when that is. We’re often doing a backflip. We’re driving the trucks backwards down the highway because we have to say the opposite, but not in such a way that is just sort of gainsaying how we actually feel. So, I don’t know, 13.4%.”Executive producer Tom Purcell: “There’s proof that he’s different, because we allow people to have their dogs at the office, and on the third floor for whatever reason, there’s a pack of dogs there. When Stephen is in character walking down that hallway, the dogs go crazy. They hate him. And when he’s in gentle, nice, regular Stephen-mode, they like him fine.”

On his interview with Maurice Sendak:

Colbert: “First he had to talk to me on the phone, because I said, I need to know just how alter kocker this guy is. And I talked to him on the phone, and it’s this really, really long process of him saying, “Which button? I have to change rooms, I don’t want to talk here. Which button?” And he goes on and on and I’m listening, and then finally he goes, “[Sigh.] I’m sorry, my people, I just don’t know what button to push.” And I said, “No, take your time.” And he goes, “I’m 83. Death looms.” And I said, “Maurice, keep it light.” And I got off the phone with him 20 minutes later, I said, I think that might be the greatest phone call I’ve ever had in my life. I hope the interview that we did was as good as the 20 minutes I had with him over the phone, because I got off the phone and I said, I think that’s what humans are like. We’re so good at like, protecting ourselves, how we actually feel about everything. Maurice Sendak reminded me what human beings are like. We’re fascinating. Mostly, we don’t let other people know, but he did. Completely unguarded person who was not without crafting his answer, but he really just didn’t care what people thought of him.”

On how much they think about the influence of their show on young voters:

Colbert: “Zero. ‘Hey you know what, this script wasn’t funny, but I think it’s gonna influence some voters, guys. Good job. We do work for Influence Central, you know.’”

On the scripts that are prepared ahead of time:

Colbert: “We’ve got three categories: hopper, pantry, and then just raw ideas. Pantry means the script is done, it’s written, it’s ready to go, sitting there like a loaf of bread. Loaded with preservatives. Hopper is an idea that we know we like that we’d like to launch, or maybe even a draft that’s not working yet but can. And then there’s always raw pitches and ideas.”

On the craziest day of the show:

Colbert: “We had this contest between me and The Decemberists, because we had a green screen challenge on our show, and then the Decemberists did their own green screen challenge, and we said, ‘You’re riding our coattails. How dare you?’ So they challenged us to a shred-off, and so we had them on the show for Guitarmageddon. It was the last show of the year — it was our Christmas show essentially — and we decided to make a huge thing, so we had it introduced by Henry Kissinger.So Kissinger came in the afternoon, and I couldn’t believe, I’m talking to Henry Kissinger and Kissinger is saying, [in Kissinger accent], “Ladies and gentleman…” It’s a pre-tape, and we wrote this one line for him. He’s just explaining what the rules are, like, “Ladies and gentleman, crank it up.” “Well, Henry, who won the contest?” “Today, Stephen, America won.” And after the whole thing’s over and Henry Kissinger has done his piece, he had a line. I said, “Would you mind just saying this one more line, Dr. Kissinger?” And the line was – because we’re trying to figure out, why did he come to do this? Why would Henry Kissinger do this stupid show? And the line was, “Where are my pancakes? I was promised pancakes.” We have a tape of him [reading the line], “No, that’s too much.” That’s one of the craziest moments.That is the show where we said, oh, there is unlimited open field running. Anything fits on the show. It was after that show that I said to the, the first time I ever said, ‘Remember folks, it’s just like O’Reilly.’ Because you realize the character believes anything he thinks, says, [or] cares about is important, anything fits on the show. And so that’s why we’ve been able to sponsor the Olympics or go to Iraq or whatever it was. If it’s important to him, he’ll do it.”

On their sponsorship deal with Wheat Thins:

Colbert: “We do these intrustive sponsorships sometimes. I promised to do it four times a year, and [the network] said, ‘Just mention, “This is brought to you by Wheat Thins.”’ Well, we never want to do that, we always want to make it a big deal. We want to hug the bear, we want to hug the evil close to our chest. We were gonna do the Wheat Thins thing, and somebody in the room said, ‘Oh, you’ve got the email. Don’t forget, we’ve got the email.’ I said, ‘What email?’ And Rich said, ‘Well there’s an email for how we can and cannot talk about Wheat Thins.‘“Co-executive producer Rich Dahm: “We had already been making fun of it. We had been going, ‘Oh this thing’s egregious, but we didn’t think we could ever use it.’”Colbert: “So I had Rich read it to me, and our honest reaction…”Dahm: “It indiciated how many Wheat Thins you can demonstrate eating. You can only eat up to 16. That’s the rule.”Colbert: ‘This is a uniter, not a divider. Wheat Things bring people together for opportunities. Wheat Thins is not about changing the world. Wheat Thins is not a rebel. You are not to display more than 16.”Dahm: “But the wondeful coda to that is that the people that sent us that memo…”Colbert: “And all we did was mock it on air for seven minutes.”Dahm: “And they were not joking. That was a serious marketing memo. And they took our segment to Cannes, right?”Colbert: “To the Cannes Lions, it’s the biggest marketing awards in the world. And they won the Gold Lion with our piece. And they later said, ‘It was wonderful working with them. Their whole team was really wonderful.’”

On how they approach each news story:

Colbert: “The most important thing when we look at any script is, what is my emotional approach to this news story. The facts, for those of you who may have watched the show, are not so important. It’s how he feels. Same thing with the guests, when I’m going over, is this guy a good guy or a bad guy? Are you helping America or are you part of the problem, and can I bring you lower?”

On whether he ever intends to break character

Colbert: “No. I kick myself a little bit when that happens. But I always want the audience to have a sense that I’m enjoying the show as a performer, but we never actually try to generate that moment. It just surprises me.”

On whether there are rules or tenets that you can’t cross

Writer Rob Dubbin: “The thing that I’ve learned most from him is, don’t punch down. That’s the biggest. It’s not a big comedy theory workshop on a technical level, but I know that Stephen is really interested in high status people and low status people and the dynamics between them. And I feel like one of the common denominators in things that don’t work for the character, and therefore don’t work for the show, is just things where the victim is the punchline. That does not work. And I also think that’s a common denominator for the easy jokes that, when something that sometimes makes a room full of people laugh and they don’t really know why they’re laughing, they’re just laughing because everyone else is laughing. A lot of times, you’ve messed up.”Colbert: “You’ve punched down. That laugh, I call the mouthful of blood. Like, the sound the audience makes, sometimes you didn’t even realize you did it, you’re like, “Oh shit, I made the wrong person the target of that joke.” Because you’ll hear the audience, “Eh heh heh.” I always picture a very nice audience, but when they laugh, just blood goes [spilling out their mouth]. Oh, I’ve got a mouthful of blood laugh.”

On the ego-centric set design

Colbert: “We do everything we can on the show to raise my status as high as we can. I’m sitting in a desk the shape of my initial C. Behind me, if you look, the curve of the Earth is behind me, and there are beams of light coming out from behind my head as if I am the rising sun. When we did the first design on the set, I went to the designer, Jim Fenhagen, who also designs NBC News, Fox News, the Republican Convention. He’s an old friend of mine, and I said, “Jim, I want your inspiration to be Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Because Jesus has no halo, but all the architecture of the world and the room points to Jesus’s head. All of creation is God’s halo?” And I said, “Yeah.” [Points to himself.] So the original set literally had lines painted on the floor that all pointed — all the architectural lines, all the bookshelves pointed — at my head.”

On turning up or down the character with his guests

Colbert: “If I feel like the person is really nervous, I dial it back immediately, so they can feel comfortable. And I see the nervousness in ways that you can’t; the camera just doesn’t capture. So you’ll see my dial it back because I don’t actually want the person to have a bad time. The guy may be crazy, but they are my guest. I want them to have a good time. And there’s also times when I’m very frustrated because I actually know a lot about their subject, but my character doesn’t, and I find that very frustrating. I remember I said that to Jon Stewart once. I had Neil DeGrasse Tyson on. I’m very interested in Neil’s subject, and I said, ‘That’s so frustrating, because I want to engage him from a place of knowledge because there are all these interesting places I want to go, but I have to not know what he means, and somehow by embodying an ignorance, he gets to dispel a common ignorance about a subject. I find that frustrating, I wish I could actually be knowledage as you are with your guests sometimes.’ And he goes, ‘Oh I wish I could have the freedom of your ignorance because then I could get away with those terrible things you say to people. And no one writes you up in Jezebel.’”
Behind the Scenes of ‘The Colbert Report’ with Colbert […]